BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE

Em­pire grills writer/di­rec­tor Drew God­dard about his ex­cit­ing new film noir, the ti­tle of which trans­lates as ‘Bad Times At The The Royal’. Plus: Chris Hemsworth’s nips!

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS TERRI WHITE

In­side the anony­mous grey build­ing, the air is cooler, thin­ner, though cut through with quiet ur­gency and ex­pec­ta­tion. God­dard him­self, de­spite be­ing in what he de­scribes as “the fine-tun­ing stage” of the edit of his sec­ond di­rec­to­rial out­ing, Bad Times At The El Royale, is smil­ing, maybe even sur­pris­ingly calm. He has just a hand­ful of weeks to lock the film and de­liver it to the stu­dio; a dead­line he also de­scribes as the mo­ment “they pry it out of my hands”.

Ev­ery­thing about Bad Times At The El Royale has been fast and in many re­spects, smooth. It be­came an of­fi­cial, formed idea, an ac­tual thing, in Novem­ber 2016. But re­ally, God­dard ad­mits, this was a project he’d been think­ing about for years. He’d al­ways wanted to do a film noir, or, more specif­i­cally, a film in­spired by crime fic­tion. As a teenager, God­dard grad­u­ated from Roald Dahl to Dashiell Ham­mett, Flan­nery O’con­nor and James Ell­roy. Then came film noir at col­lege: “When I started to un­der­stand not just the genre, but the genre’s place in film his­tory and how that re­flected with the times we’re go­ing through.” It’s been a great love af­fair ever since.

The set­ting for the story — a ho­tel, the El Royale — came dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with his wife. “One day I’d been work­ing on some­thing that had a lot of ef­fects in it. I was com­plain­ing about how soul­less it is, be­cause you’re just watch­ing com­puter it­er­a­tions over and over. I said, ‘My next movie is just go­ing to be a bunch of ac­tors in a room talk­ing.’ And we hap­pened to be driv­ing up and down here in the Val­ley, and there’s a lot of lit­tle mo­tels and ho­tels along the streets, and she said, ‘Oh, you should set some­thing right here.’ It just was one of those light­ning bolts.”

The idea per­co­lated for a year, dur­ing which God­dard re­searched the 1960s, com­bin­ing the ho­tel set­ting with the

It’s barely 9am and al­ready nigh-on 100 de­grees, the July day that Em­pire meets Drew God­dard in his of­fice in Los An­ge­les.

pe­riod. When it came to the bul­let in the gun, though, just do­ing it, again it was his wife who spurred him into ac­tion. “She is very at­tuned to me and said, ‘Okay, it’s time. Go write that ho­tel movie you’ve been talk­ing about.’” God­dard spent two months writ­ing it, with most of the work hap­pen­ing in just three weeks. Three very dis­ci­plined weeks, spent in a ho­tel room, wak­ing at 8am and writ­ing straight for a min­i­mum of 12 hours. A dis­ci­pline, a “very rig­or­ous” process that God­dard “learned at the foot of Joss Whe­don”. It ac­tu­ally boils down to a sim­ple equa­tion, one that is counter-in­tu­itive to how most writ­ers work. Spend

90 per cent of your time on the out­line, get­ting the story right, and ten per cent on writ­ing the ac­tual script. Those in­tense three weeks were that ten per cent.

The fol­low­ing two months were spent fig­ur­ing out the bud­get, still with­out hav­ing so much as shown the script to a stu­dio. “I hired a line pro­ducer to help me, be­cause I don’t like to de­velop things,” says God­dard. “I worked re­ally hard on the script so I could say, ‘Shoot this, this is what I want to do.’” Fi­nally, with a bud­get and a screen­play, God­dard went to the stu­dios in March 2017.

Word, whis­pers, whipped around Hol­ly­wood. There was an orig­i­nal, ex­cit­ing script do­ing the rounds, one that had come com­pletely out of the blue. Pretty much ev­ery stu­dio that read God­dard’s screen­play wanted it, he ad­mits, but one meant more than most, his home for The Mar­tian (which earned him an Os­car nom­i­na­tion): 20th Cen­tury Fox. GOD­DARD HAD A story, had a stu­dio, but now he needed a cast to slip into the skin of his char­ac­ters. And no or­di­nary cast: this was a true ensem­ble piece. The first ac­tor on the list and the first to sign: Jeff Bridges, who God­dard de­scribes as “the swing-for-the-fences, dream per­son to play Fa­ther Flynn”, a down-on-his-luck pri­est who, like the other six leads, checks in to the El Royale one rainy night. They’re all strangers and far from who or what they ini­tially seem.

Bridges, for his part, ad­mits that “it usu­ally takes a long time to de­cide whether I want to get in­volved. I roll it around in my head a lot. Ev­ery once in a while, a script will come along where it’s an easy sit­u­a­tion. That was the case with this one.” Af­ter one read, Bridges showed it to his wife and then “I just said, ‘Let’s go!’”

Un­sur­pris­ingly, hav­ing Jeff Bridges on board out of the gate had its ben­e­fits. “I’ve loved Jeff for such a long time. I’ve al­ways wanted to work with him,” says Dakota John­son, who plays South­ern

crim­i­nal Emily Sum­mer­spring. Play­ing her sis­ter is new­comer Cailee Spaeny (of Pa­cific Rim: Upris­ing and the up­com­ing On The Ba­sis Of Sex), who had a 45-minute con­ver­sa­tion with God­dard be­fore her au­di­tion in which they dis­cussed, “Who are you and who am I? We talked about that and his no-ass­hole pol­icy — no­body on set can be an ass­hole.”

The re­quire­ments for down-on-her-luck lounge singer Dar­lene Sweet (pretty much all of these char­ac­ters are down their luck) were a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. God­dard was de­ter­mined that she should sing live — no lip synch, no pre-record. He saw sev­eral ac­tors (some very fa­mous), but there was magic with Bri­tish­born Broad­way star Cyn­thia Erivo. “Boy, she came into the au­di­tion and just... there’s those spe­cial mo­ments. I re­mem­ber feel­ing it when I first saw Chris [Hemsworth] in that au­di­tion ten years ago [for The Cabin In The Woods], and I felt the same way with Cyn­thia. She started do­ing the part, and I just be­gan weep­ing. Then she started singing: it was like the earth moved.”

It’s per­haps not sur­pris­ing, then, that God­dard leapt at the chance to work with Chris Hemsworth again, de­scrib­ing Bad Times as a “joy­ful re­union”. Hemsworth speaks about the di­rec­tor with a sim­i­lar af­fec­tion. Drew God­dard is, af­ter all, the man who es­sen­tially saved him. Hemsworth had an empty bank ac­count and thoughts of giv­ing up on Hol­ly­wood un­til land­ing Cabin — God­dard’s di­rec­to­rial de­but and the film that changed ev­ery­thing for Hemsworth. That said, Bad Times wasn’t a done deal. “Drew and I stayed close over the years and al­ways talked about do­ing some­thing else,” re­mem­bers Hemsworth. “Then my agent called and said, ‘There’s this great script out there and ev­ery­one’s talk­ing about it… it’s by Drew God­dard.’ And I im­me­di­ately sat up and was like, ‘Wait a sec­ond! Why didn’t he call me about this one?!’” Hemsworth had to stop him­self blurt­ing out yes with­out read­ing a word of the script. But read it he did — and he was bowled over by writ­ing that was “lean and mean, in the sense that it’s thrilling and de­tailed but there’s pace to it and mo­men­tum”. It also of­fered Hemsworth a com­pletely new chal­lenge, as an ac­tor, play­ing cult leader Billy Lee. “My char­ac­ter was noth­ing I have ever re­ally been sent be­fore. It’s noth­ing I had ever at­tempted and I was des­per­ately search­ing for that.”

Bring­ing up the rear, as the fi­nal guest, was Jon Hamm, who was at Sun­dance when the call came from his agent to say, “If you read the script and want to do it, you need to de­cide in 48 hours and get on a plane in 72 hours.” He hit both dead­lines, com­pelled by the script — “It was a re­ally cool idea for a movie, which you don’t see very much… I found it to be ex­cit­ing” — but also the film­maker. “Drew’s got a sense of magic and won­der and orig­i­nal­ity and cre­ativ­ity that truly good film­mak­ers have,” says Hamm. “Work­ing with Drew re­minded me very much of work­ing with Edgar Wright. They just want to make movies. They don’t want to make board games, they don’t want make ‘con­tent’, they want to make movies.” Hamm was on board as vac­uum-cleaner sales­man Laramie Sey­mour Sul­li­van. And the cast­ing was com­plete.

As with the Cabin In The Woods, God­dard oc­cu­pies the role of both di­rec­tor and writer. “There are two parts of the brain, right?” he says. “There’s the con­scious and the sub­con­scious… I’ve learned to treat the writer and the di­rec­tor as very dif­fer­ent. As two dif­fer­ent peo­ple al­most.” And they are, in many re­spects, two peo­ple who can­not, should not, co-ex­ist. God­dard speaks of the mo­ment dur­ing pre-pro­duc­tion when they must go their sep­a­rate ways. “For me, it’s par­tially cer­e­mo­nial to say, ‘Okay. The writer’s now done. We’re go­ing to shake his hand and wish him good day, and now we’re go­ing on to the di­rec­tor’s job.’” But not un­til the cast had a chance to hang out with Drew God­dard, the screen­writer. To ques­tion things, try things, come

up with new ideas, chal­lenge the ones that al­ready ex­isted. “For some­one to be the writer and the di­rec­tor is such, such a bonus,” says Hemsworth. “And es­pe­cially in Drew’s case. There’s no word on that page, no de­tail on that set, no piece of fur­ni­ture, [no item of ] cloth­ing from your cos­tume, that doesn’t say some­thing very specif­i­cally. Ev­ery­thing is nu­anced and lay­ered with depth and de­tail and back­story.”

That’s not to say that, af­ter step­ping back, Drew God­dard the writer was ever more than a call away. “When­ever we would ever hit a lit­tle stum­bling block, he could in­vite that part of him­self that was the writer back in,” says Bridges. “And ad­dress the chal­lenges at hand. If the di­a­logue wasn’t ring­ing true for some rea­son, to have the writer right on board there...”

Whichever hat he’s wear­ing at that pre­cise mo­ment, God­dard fun­da­men­tally be­lieves in the en­dur­ing power of sto­ries, re­gard­less of the busi­ness, com­mer­cial or even po­lit­i­cal cli­mate. “To some ex­tent, you do have to adapt,” he says. “Things do change but [not] the ba­sic core parts. Peo­ple still like sto­ries. Peo­ple still like sto­ry­telling and com­mu­nal sto­ry­telling. There is a very pri­mal level of this that I don’t think will ever change.”

What has changed, with­out ques­tion, is the type of movies that are made. The type that fill out cin­ema screens, on open­ing week­end and be­yond. That take bil­lion-dol­lar box of­fices. And Drew God­dard, as a writer on Dead­pool 2 and the up­com­ing X-men: Dark Phoenix and di­rec­tor of the in-de­vel­op­ment X-force, is cer­tainly no stranger to fran­chises or cin­e­matic uni­verses. But a mid-bud­get movie such as Bad Times, pro­pelled along by a great piece of writ­ing? That’s rare. “There’s cer­tainly these big tent­poles that are eat­ing up a lot of the oxy­gen,” says God­dard, care­fully. “But they’re eat­ing up a lot of the oxy­gen be­cause peo­ple want to go see that. That’s what peo­ple want, and I want that too. I’m there ev­ery open­ing week­end.”

Chris Hemsworth, sim­i­larly, knows his way around a box of­fice-blast­ing tent­pole movie, but clearly is drawn to both God­dard and Bad Times for sim­i­lar rea­sons; his tastes and mo­ti­va­tions dove­tail­ing with his di­rec­tor’s. “I feel like there’s now this big void in this type of sto­ry­telling,” Hemsworth says. “Ab­so­lutely the larger films are sort of my bread and but­ter and I love them, but there is some­thing dif­fer­ent [here] as an ac­tor. There’s some­thing dif­fer­ent from the di­rec­tor. There’s some­thing dif­fer­ent from an au­di­ence’s point of view when you get this type of story… To be swept up in the magic and the chaos of it, but in a dif­fer­ent way than just shock­ing you with big noises and ex­plo­sions and spe­cial ef­fects, you know?”

At the heart of Bad Times, as with many Drew God­dard projects, is the story of what it is to be hu­man, what we do in our re­la­tion­ships, what we do to those we’re in re­la­tion­ships with. “I’m at­tracted to com­pli­cated char­ac­ters who find con­nec­tion, even when they should not,” says God­dard. “I love real con­flict. To see each other’s point of view, but un­der­stand, ‘We may have to kill each other.’ And that is cer­tainly at play here in Bad Times.”

That char­ac­ter-driven work re­quires in­tense one-on-one work with each ac­tor. To col­lab­o­rate, in the truest sense of the word. “I re­mem­ber one time we were

talk­ing in-depth about my char­ac­ter,” says Cailee Spaeny. “And we both just started cry­ing. Be­cause we have such a deep con­nec­tion with these peo­ple and we wanted them to ac­tu­ally tell a story. We wanted them to be cared for.”

Cyn­thia Erivo sim­i­larly de­scribes a work­shop with the di­rec­tor, where they talked for an hour about what Dar­lene Sweet was try­ing to do, the walls she put up and why. “As we went on and I got to know him bet­ter and he got to know me bet­ter, there were mo­ments I’d read some­thing and be like, ‘I won­der if we could try this,’” she re­mem­bers. “And he was so open to switch­ing things up and try­ing things and re­work­ing cer­tain things. I just felt very lis­tened to.”

Such was the ex­tent of their part­ner­ship that a sig­nif­i­cant speech by Dar­lene was added to the script at Erivo’s sug­ges­tion. She sketched out what she thought might work, God­dard sent his thoughts back and at the end of this “game of ten­nis”, they had a brand-new scene. “That’s a big deal,” says Erivo. “For some­one to be able to insert a piece of sto­ry­telling that wasn’t there be­fore to their script.”

Sit­ting with god­dard

now, with just weeks left in the edit, it seems ex­tra­or­di­nary that he’s only mak­ing Bad Times now. Why did it take so long for his life-long love af­fair to ma­te­ri­alise on the screen? “I don’t know,” he says hon­estly. “I don’t re­ally have a big plan in life. I don’t re­ally think too far ahead. Like, I couldn’t tell you what kind of films I’ll be mak­ing five years from now.”

But God­dard can trace a line be­tween his films, the sto­ries they tell, and his own life. From the man he was and the man he has be­come. “If I look at what I was go­ing through — Cloverfield is about meet­ing my wife and fall­ing in love. Cabin In The Woods was very much about, ‘Oh, time to grow up. But I don’t want to grow up.’ The push-pull of the adult and the child. The Mar­tian was very much at a time when I was be­com­ing a fa­ther — what does it mean, our place in the world, and how do we im­part that out­ward? None of these things were on my mind when I was mak­ing them but when

I look back at my life I go, ‘Oh, that’s what was on my mind.’”

And with Bad Times At The El Royale?

Can he see yet what it is, while still in it? “I feel like Bad Times is very much about the time I am at in my life,” he says. “And the war I am liv­ing in right now. And how I’m pro­cess­ing that as an artist.” The war God­dard refers to is Trump. It’s no co­in­ci­dence that he fi­nally wrote the film the same month Trump en­tered the White House. But this isn’t a film set in 2018 — it’s set in 1969, when an­other man who had a dan­ger­ous re­la­tion­ship with the truth en­tered the same res­i­dence: Richard Nixon. The 1960s were also a decade that saw the rise of cults and the en­su­ing mas­sacres, as well as the as­sas­si­na­tions of JFK, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. “I talked to my par­ents,” God­dard says, “who were very much teenagers at that time. How does that feel, when you watch these peo­ple that you re­ally be­lieve in from an ide­o­log­i­cal point of view, just get wiped out in front of you? And then have the com­plete op­po­site [Nixon] take over… It just felt like the right petri dish for this movie.”

But would this film have been made with­out 45? God­dard pauses. “I don’t know. I think so. One of the in­ter­est­ing things about study­ing the ’60s is you re­alise a lot of the things you’re

deal­ing with, and not just in Amer­ica, on a global level, they’ve been here a long time. This is not new. Cer­tainly there are new as­pects of the bat­tles that are go­ing on, but a lot of this stuff is stuff that we as a peo­ple have been deal­ing with for quite some time, and it’s not go­ing to go away mag­i­cally, with one elec­tion. These are things that are hap­pen­ing over and over and run much deeper than that.” It’s a theme that plays out in Bad Times, what God­dard calls the “cir­cu­lar na­ture of time” and how we con­tinue to re­visit the same themes, both as in­di­vid­u­als and as a so­ci­ety.

Soon, there’s a knock at the door. The writer-di­rec­tor is needed, ur­gently. And with Drew God­dard there’s no del­e­gat­ing, no pass­ing of the buck. Af­ter all, they’ll be com­ing in just a few weeks. Com­ing to pry it out of his hands. He’ll be ready. Af­ter all, this is the story he’s waited his whole life to tell.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE IS IN CIN­E­MAS FROM 12 OC­TO­BER

Clock­wise from main: Chris Hemsworth’s cult leader Billy Lee; Cyn­thia Erivo as hap­less singer Dar­lene Sweet; Jon Hamm’s sales­man, Laramie Sey­mour Sul­li­van; Di­rec­tor Drew God­dard with Nick Of­fer­man, Mark O’brien and Jeff Bridges on set.

Clock­wise from main: Bridges’ Fa­ther Flynn col­lars Lewis Pull­man’s ho­tel concierge; Sad times for Sul­li­van; Billy Lee works his charm on Cailee Spaeny’s im­pres­sion­able young girl; Dakota Fan­ning’s delin­quent Emily Sum­mer­spring.

Clock­wise from main: Hemsworth and God­dard joke around be­tween takes. Well, God­dard does; The plot thick­ens for a star­tled Dar­lene; Cult mem­bers take a trip led by Billy Lee; He’s armed — but is he dan­ger­ous?

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